Life in the fast lane on offer for 'red' drivers

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 November, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 November, 2003, 12:00am

Independent minibus operators will be offered concessions in exchange for switching to licensed, green vehicles

The government has floated a trial plan that might eventually phase out red minibuses in the northwestern New Territories by offering some 'red' drivers the chance to set up their own companies and drive on faster highways.

The plan is the latest government attempt to phase out the unregulated red minibuses in favour of green minibuses, which are regulated.

The red drivers can devise routes and set fares without approval from the Transport Department.

Those who decide to participate in the new scheme must agree to combine their individual operations into three new driver-owned companies and to repaint their vehicles green.

The incentive is permission to operate on Route 3, a highway with a higher speed limit than the one imposed on current red bus routes.

The Transport Department will launch a survey of red minibus drivers today to gauge the level of support for the plan.

Officials also want to count the number of buses and drivers plying the Yuen Long to Kowloon route.

New companies formed under the plan would be given trial licences for three new green minibus routes. The routes go from Yuen Long to Tsuen Wan, Mongkok and Jordan, along Route 3, via the Tai Lam Tunnel.

At present, red minibuses from Yuen Long are restricted to operating on Castle Peak Road.

The biggest concession for the red drivers is that they will not have to tender for the new routes, saving them bureaucratic headaches that could otherwise prove insurmountable.

Unlike green minibuses, red minibuses are typically operated by their owners.

The licences would be valid for six months.

The government would then assess the performance of the three operators to determine whether to make the routes permanent.

The Transport Department has organised a meeting with drivers for next Friday to explain and discuss the plan.

Industry sources associated with the two main red minibus associations have backed the plan, but it is uncertain what level of support the changes have among the many independent owner-operators.

'These drivers would lose their independence and they may not want to be part of a larger company at all,' one source said.

The three new routes can only accommodate about 60 minibuses, so red minibus owners not part of the scheme would be allowed to continue operating under present rules.

Government sources said they were uncertain about how many red minibuses actually operated between Kowloon and Yuen Long, but estimated there are about 300 drivers.

In June, about 150 minibus drivers staged a slow-drive protest from Yuen Long to Central to demand the right to operate on Route 3 - on the basis that the Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation's new West Rail line might bring too much competition.

The drivers claim passengers could save at least 30 minutes by using Route 3 and the tunnel, even though the Tai Lam Tunnel's $60 toll may make the route too costly for many commuters.